Turns out, one of the second-order effects of a pandemic is a distortion of time. It had been 278 days since the Sixers stepped onto the court at the Wells Fargo Center. Somehow, though, it felt as if they had never left. Or maybe it felt as if they weren’t really here. It was the middle of December, and there was October basketball being played. Two months had gone by since the NBA Finals concluded, four months since the Sixers’ usual May became their August. The coach was different. The seats were covered by a big blue tarp. There’s a vaccine coming. Snow, too. We hadn’t had that in more than 400 days.
The building somehow feels smaller when the only people inside of it are in the vicinity of the court. The Sixers did what they could to inject some life into an event that is lifeless even in the most socio-typical circumstances. After each member of the Celtics’ starting lineup was introduced, the PA system blared with a recording of fans chanting “Sucks.” It was a worthy effort. And then the preseason began.
“You felt like you were at home better than you did when you were in the bubble,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “Let me put it like that. ... This felt like a home game.”
Where this season goes is anybody’s guess. That is as true in an X’s and O’s sense as it is with regard to NBA’s attempt to play a normal season in a pandemic. One thing we learned from the conclusion of last season is that, at the end of the day, the game is what lasts. The bubble may have been a novel experiment in social engineering, the hoops was the hoops, with all of the drama and predictability of a normal playoff campaign. LeBron James won a title. The basketball was enjoyable to watch. Few in the chattering classes bothered to argue that the NBA had not earned the right to give it a go for another season.
What can we say about these Sixers now that a meaningless 108-99 win is in the books? Not much. That’s mostly because it is going to take some time for the new personnel to mesh with the old personnel and for all of it to mesh with the new coaching staff. Rivers said his primary focus was on conditioning, which should not come as a surprise given the abbreviated offseason.
We saw that Seth Curry is going to prove to be such a no-brainer of an addition that you’ll forget that he wasn’t here last year. Early on, he hit a couple of midrange jumpers to rescue an otherwise clunky offense. Late in the first quarter, he hit Joel Embiid with a behind-the-back pass for a wide-open elbow jumper. When Ben Simmons checked out of the game for the first time, we saw Shake Milton assume primary ballhandling responsibilities for the second unit, a solution that jibes with his usage last season but remains difficult to envision being a functional long-term plan. Milton has a smooth game that was on display whenever he was on the court. He finished the night with 19 points, shooting 3-of-6 from three-point range. Rivers has raved about him from Day One. Yet you needed only look at Tyrese Maxey’s play in the fourth quarter to see what an elite handle could bring to the rotation, whether alongside Milton with the second unit or even Simmons with the starters. Maxey, the rookie out of Kentucky, scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting with three assists while playing the whole fourth quarter.
“He’s going to be pushing for minutes,” Rivers said.
Really, though, the destiny of this year’s version of the Sixers is in large part contingent on the sorts of external forces preseason basketball cannot predict. The first is the trade market. Specifically, its upper crust. At this point, the mention of James Harden in any Sixers story might feel like a desperate reach of clicks, but the specter of the Rockets star looms large in any attempt to predict how 2020-21 will unfold. This is true even if you only consider Harden in hypothetical terms, as an example that the difficult, season-defining work has yet to be done.
While there is a lot to like about the Sixers as they currently stand, seeing them on the court together for the first time only reinforced the conclusion you would have drawn just by looking at them on paper. Championship teams almost always possess a dynamism that the Sixers have never displayed while relying on Embiid and Simmons as their top two scoring options. They’ve had it for a grand total of about six months of the last three years, during the brief fever dream that was the Jimmy Butler Era. The NBA postseason is a realm where ultimate power is vested in the players who have the ability to create their own action, players who, when all else fails, can take the ball in their hands and ignore the other nine players on the court and decide that they are going to get the team a bucket. The Sixers had such a player in Butler. They do not have one now.
For the fourth straight year, the Sixers will enter a season hoping that this will be the one in which Simmons establishes himself as such a scorer. And maybe he will. But in his 26 minutes of action against the Celtics, he didn’t do anything that would suggest he is a dramatically different player. He showed his usual flash or two, including a third-quarter stretch that saw him attack the rim off the dribble on three straight possessions, resulting in a layup, a kick-out to Curry for a knock-down three, and a trip to the foul line. But the only world in which the Sixers can dance to the Finals with the ones who brought them is one in which Simmons does these things consistently, finally harnessing the inner LeBron that his physical tools portend. Otherwise, the Sixers will have little choice but to consider all options as the trade deadline nears.
Of course, the further we get from the present, the more difficult it is to imagine what the future might bring. As Rivers himself has acknowledged, the 2020-21 season will be defined as much by events outside of the arena as within it. For now, the one thing we can say is that basketball was played. Given the circumstances, that counts for something.